Last Call for Gumshoes

For nearly 50 years, a tight-knit group of San Francisco private eyes—intellectual, swashbuckling, anti-authority lefties—practiced their craft in the pursuit of truth and, hopefully, justice.

San Francisco–based private investigator Jack Palladino.
San Francisco–based private investigator Jack Palladino.
PENNI GLADSTONE

Something’s gone missing from the shadowy streets of San Francisco, a precious, revealing relic already mostly vanished long before the thieving suction of COVID-19. A piece of it is still with us, though who knows whether even that will survive.

Few have noticed its disappearance, which is a tragedy because it is a deliciously naughty, rich vein of life; the city and its rough-edged, romantic culture will suffer without it.

So, what is this about? What happened? There are clues: the curl of cigarette smoke, turned-up overcoat collars, steel revolvers, bare knuckles, rumors of a black bird swathed in jewels. But wait! That’s just the fictional version.

Or is it?

David “Fechh” Fechheimer (1942–2019) was the epitome of the truth-seeking San Francisco private eye who emerged from the counterculture of the 1960s.
David “Fechh” Fechheimer (1942–2019) was the epitome of the truth-seeking San Francisco private eye who emerged from the counterculture of the 1960s.
JOHN STOREY/SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE

CLUE: TRUE CAMARADERIE

David Fechheimer’s giant head, grinning, bearded, and bespectacled, floated above the crowd, attached to the ceiling with a piece of fishing wire tied around a light fixture.

The 100-plus people, an unlikely, largely older set of lawyers, journalists, writers, vintners, calligraphers, tap dancers, poets, and philosophers, had come to the North Beach bar Tosca to say goodbye to Fechh (pronounced “Fetch”), though not necessarily to be stared at by him in silence, a Fechheimer specialty. His son, Zach, called the three-by-two-foot photo of his dad wafting overhead “a little demented and still kind of sweet.”

Hardly your typical adjectives to describe what Fechh had been: arguably the best private eye in San Francisco. And a zen master of a unique era of private investigator characters and practices that blossomed here in the 1970s and is now sadly waning, marked more by funerals and retirements than by investigative adventures.

“To me,” says Alex Kline, Fechh’s lifelong friend, a Stanford grad, and a PI colleague, “he’s part of a lost world I just don’t think exists anymore.”

PI Tink Thompson and Alta contributor Phil Bronstein joined Alta Asks Live for a digital discussion on this article and more. WATCH

A revealing Fechh anecdote begins with a pathologist at San Francisco’s then-independent Davies Medical Center and a human skin mole packed in paraffin.

Larry Hillblom, the multimillionaire cofounder of express parcel service DHL, had died in a 1995 plane crash, leaving almost no traces of DNA to resolve claims of paternity made by a number of Southeast Asian and Pacific Islander women who were underage girls when Hillblom was engaging in unprotected-sex safaris and pedophilia throughout the region.

The mole was Hillblom’s only genetic marker, and it turned out to be botched evidence. Hundreds of millions of dollars were at stake. So Fechh, working with lawyer Peter Neufeld—who was representing one of Hillblom’s alleged children—came up with a plan: get DNA from Hillblom’s mother, who was living on a small farm in the Central Valley and had so far refused to comply with a court order to provide blood samples.

Fechh discovered that she “didn’t leave her house very often,” Neufeld tells me. “But she did go to church on Sunday.”

The private eye went and sat in the pew behind her. At the end of the service, he followed her out, stopped her, and asked for help; he said he had Parkinson’s (he didn’t) and was having trouble licking the church’s donation envelope. The mother kindly obliged, leaving DNA-infused spittle behind (and the church a few dollars poorer).

Neufeld’s client was one of four children awarded some $50 million each thanks to shared genes. As a PI, Fechh had “extraordinary creativity,” says Neufeld.

Zach Fechheimer refers to his late father as having “vanished” or “disappeared,” not as deceased, as though this is another mystery to be solved.

The night at the Tosca bar—itself celebrated and faded—intended as a memorial after Fechh’s unmysterious death in April 2019 due to heart problems, was also part of a long goodbye to a 40-year stretch of individualist, humanist, hyperintellectual, countercultural, antiauthoritarian lefty PIs. No guns (mostly), no ex-cops, no gold chains, no heavy hand (again, mostly).

The PIs of Fechh’s time had gotten their early training not as FBI field agents or in police academies but at Vietnam War protests and in the humanities at university graduate schools. Their casual talk was as much about Sartre and Chaucer and life’s metaphors as it was witness stalking and stolen garbage. But they were also tough and sometimes nearly fearless.

Sandra Sutherland is highly regarded PI.
Sandra Sutherland is a highly regarded PI.
PENNI GLADSTONE

CLUE: TRUTH SEEKING

Sandra Sutherland majored in early childhood education. But she was driven by a particular kind of curiosity—what her shrink once called her “compulsion to confront the juggernaut” of power and authority—and wanted to be a journalist. In 1971, a chance bar encounter landed her a PI job at $3 an hour.

Several years later, she was working a San Quentin murder case and inserted herself at a Southern California drive-in movie with an enormous, violent convicted felon and government informant (hostile to her client) sitting next to her in the car. A six-by-four-by-one-inch metal tape recorder, fortunately never discovered, was secretly strapped to her thigh.

She got some information she wanted; the informant failed to get what he wanted.

She worked with Fechh for a while and then formed an agency with her husband, Jack Palladino, another Fechheimer associate. Undercover work was her specialty.

When Black Panther Party cofounder Huey Newton was tried for the murder of an Oakland prostitute in the mid-1970s, Sutherland was hired by the defense team. Posing as a reporter, she tried to interview the key prosecution eyewitness, Crystal Grey.

“She didn’t want to meet, so I wrote her a letter,” Sutherland tells me. “I said, I don’t want to know very much. Finally, she said yes. We met and became friends. I learned a bunch of things over time: that Crystal had night blindness. And she was high on marijuana the night of the murder. And further away than the police said she was from the shooting.

“I also learned she was gay and in a romantic relationship with another woman. I met the girlfriend as well and did some background on her and found out she had been involved in a different shooting, and there was all this pressure of her facing a murder charge. Prosecutors put pressure on Crystal to help save her friend. All that came out in trial. Ultimately, her testimony was considered pretty irrelevant.”

The case ended in a hung jury.

What didn’t get discussed at trial was how much Sutherland’s personal touch may have turned the tide. (When she discovered that Crystal had never been out of her run-down neighborhood in Oakland, she invited her on a tourist trip to Sausalito.)

“We just sort of got on, had a good time together,” Sutherland says. “She was in a very tough spot and wanted someone to talk to. Why does anyone talk to us? People just want to talk about their lives.”

Left unspoken was Newton’s horrific gangster reputation. Sutherland’s assignment was to get the truth from Crystal, not to make Newton a saint.

“I didn’t feel guilty about helping Huey,” Sutherland, now retired, says. “One of my strongest motivations in criminal defense cases was to hold the police accountable. The prosecution needs to prove its case ethically and competently to deprive someone of their freedom, and far too often the prosecutorial investigation is lazy, incompetent, if not corrupt. I guess I wanted to show they needed to raise their game!”

“We’re not looking for truth from PIs,” says longtime San Francisco criminal defense attorney John Keker, “just things we can use at trial.” Over his long career, Keker has hired Sutherland, Palladino, and others, including, for decades, Fechh.

“I go into an interview hoping to find evidence that will help the lawyer, but basically my feeling is, the lawyers will learn the truth from me,” says Sutherland. “What they do with it is their problem.” As far as the Newton case goes, “I can’t do this without empathy. I actually like getting to know people, so it was a privilege. I was very fond of Crystal.”

“They see themselves as independent operators in a corrupt world, even if they’re working for a big corporation,” says Keker of Sutherland and her colleagues. “Some of that romantic view is bullshit.”

(Full disclosure: Keker represented me in a case involving an unfortunate scuffle in the old San Francisco Examiner’s conference room. I also showed up on a rally stage wearing a Richard Nixon mask when Keker ran for district supervisor in 1979.)

CLUE: THE DICTIONARY

private investigator, n (1940): a person not a member of a police force who is licensed to do detective work (such as investigation of suspected wrongdoing or searching for missing persons)

Examples of private investigator in a sentence:

// She hired a private investigator to follow her
husband.

// The retired policeman decided to become a private investigator.

—Merriam-Webster

To the extent that PIs live in the American imagination, there is still that stubborn black-and-white view of heavy-footed gumshoes, loose with the truth, often on the take, catching boozy naps in clunky sedans with black-walled tires. Maybe we’ve seen Bogie as Sam Spade or heard about the real-life Ray Donovan: the multi-indicted Hollywood fixer Anthony Pellicano, who illegally wiretapped celebrities and their loved ones. Or about former Symbionese Liberation Army member Bill Harris, who, having served time for kidnapping Patty Hearst (and he was later charged with murder), became a private investigator.

Ironies abound.

So do PI credentials. To get a license, there are some hoops, including up to 6,000 hours of experience and a two-hour exam. Extra requirements for a gun permit; the Fechh cadre didn’t use them. Fees you can charge if you’re official range from $60 an hour to upward of $400. The California Association of Licensed Investigators has 62 members in San Francisco and more than 1,500 internationally.

Many of them will still hunt down cheating spouses or expose corporate intrigue. Others work for the big international security firms, like Kroll, Pinkerton, and the Mintz Group, all with San Francisco offices but headquartered elsewhere. Some members don’t practice anymore.

For a lucky group of San Francisco investigators including Fechh and Sutherland, the private eye world was profoundly renegotiated in the early ’70s by a geek gadget genius, a former military investigator with a law degree already famous in the field for his creative spying technology: Hal Lipset.

When Francis Ford Coppola sought a consultant for The Conversation, his 1974 movie about a compulsively paranoid PI, he chose well in hiring Lipset. While the main character didn’t resemble the real cigar-chomping private eye, the intricate tradecraft he invented, the surveillance and surreptitious recordings, was Lipset all the way.

“Hal lit the spark that led to the flame that was David,” Zach Fechheimer—a next-gen PI—says of his dad.

Lipset leveraged intellect, ambition, and then-new tech wizardry—including the Swiss-made and aptly named Nagra SN (Série Noire), a miniature reel-to-reel tape recorder—to see that private eyes were no longer just ill-paid gofers and lackeys for lawyers but rather their full-on partners and not-so-secret weapons in court battles and other disputes.

But there was other coincidental magic happening then, a stew of contradictory ingredients that intersected with the moment. Lipset and the young new generation of PIs rode a strong tailwind of the ’60s, when rebellion and hope shared hyperactive cultural and political space. They were fact gatherers, believing that there was truth out there (and rent money) and that an aspiration to seek that truth was a critical human imperative.

Then there was San Francisco, the place, playing its own alluring role. The whole noir detective genre could not have emerged as ominously or enchantingly anywhere else. The fog, the chiaroscuro lighting, and, yes, Bogie’s Sam Spade were set here (take the Dashiell Hammett Tour) and connected forward to Fechh and his colleagues. Sam Spade was, after all, a complex antihero, not a knucklehead. He had texture and feelings. The headline of a New York Times obituary for Fechh read, “A Reserved but Adroit Sam Spade.”

Fechh, who studied James Joyce as a grad student, claimed to have decided to switch from academic to investigator after staying up all night reading The Maltese Falcon. And from Hammett and Spade, the contemporary trail has also led San Francisco author and philanthropist Robert Mailer Anderson to buy and perfectly restore Hammett’s apartment on Post and Hyde Streets, help fund the annual Noir City film festival, and even name his son Dashiell.

Fechh associate Tim Schmolder keeps a low profile as he performs surveillance from the back seat of his car in downtown San Francisco.
Fechh associate Tim Schmolder keeps a low profile as he performs surveillance from the back seat of his car in downtown San Francisco.
PENNI GLADSTONE

CLUE: REVEALERS OF SECRETS

“I don’t have any secrets.”

—private eye Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) telling a lie in The Conversation

Fechh, Sutherland, Lipset, and their cohort were the collectors and keepers—and most often sellers—of one of the most powerful forces of civilization: secrets.

Everyone has them at the center of their lives. Secrets are aggressively protected and relentlessly chased. They drive our narratives in reality and in fiction, in international intrigue and in strained marriages. Curiosity and secrets are conjoined and self-perpetuating.

Long past my bedtime, in our small Ohio home, I would crouch unseen behind the upstairs bannister to eavesdrop on my parents, arguing in the kitchen. My dad was a musician and artist at heart, forced by financial needs into social work. My mother was a stage actor, writer, and director imprisoned in a housewife role by her time and place in history. There were plenty of roiling family secrets to be learned on those stairs—suicide, lovelessness, fury, feckless financial dealings—and a compulsion to know things that still drives me today. It’s that fixation on fleshing out the story that binds private investigators and investigative reporters through common practices and source relationships.

I was hiking with my younger son on Mount Tamalpais a few years ago, talking about what it was like being a war correspondent, and he asked me, “Dad, what scares you?” I thought for just a minute. “Not knowing things,” I said.

We pay plenty to have our hidden truths excavated by shrinks while someone else pays a PI for the very same thing. The real force of secrets resides in keeping them, not letting them go. Which is why there are professionals to pry them loose.

“It’s not just a job,” says Tim Schmolder, PI, playwright, and surveillance guru within the Fechh group. “I have a genuine curiosity about people: Who are they? What are they doing? What are their secrets?”

One crisp fall afternoon in the early 1980s, I was sharing an outside café table on Union Street with the married private investigator team of Palladino and Sutherland. Their office was a walk-up next door.

These detectives wanted from me—what else?—information, the coin of the PI realm. In this case, about a local businessman from the Philippines looking to open a casino in the cemetery-rich suburb of Colma. They needed an introduction to a source of mine from my years in Manila to check the applicant’s background. As always, it was a negotiation. In return, I wanted something from them I could use for some future story.

At one point, the negotiation stalled.

Back then, I was seeing a woman I shouldn’t have been seeing. We’d kept the relationship secret—there was a public aspect to her life that wouldn’t have gone well if it were to have come out.

We’ll call her Connie.

Suddenly Palladino stopped his staccato monologue. He leaned in toward me, smiled, let a second pass, and asked, “So, how’s Connie?” Palladino was known as aggressive, even sometimes a bully in high-profile criminal cases. For a moment I felt caught, disarmed and without a snappy response. Sutherland, the stylish, wry Helen Mirren of PIs, put her hand on my arm and said, “Oh, don’t bother about Jack. He’s just showing off.”

CLUE: THE INTERVIEW

I call him Fechh not because we were close friends but because he once served me with an adverse-witness subpoena in one case and I was his client in another. Ours was not the usual relationship between a journalist and a PI, whose symbiotic work often has the same motive and objective: finding fact.

On February 6, 2012, I got a message from Fechh. I barely knew him. Plus my number was supposed to be unlisted, right? “I have a subpoena to serve on you,” he said when I called him back. He was working for lawyers defending a politician charged with domestic violence. The defendant’s neighbor, a potential key witness, was a friend of mine who had discussed the case with me.

“Let’s make it easy,” he offered, though he didn’t make it sound like it would be. “Meet me at the Four Seasons.”

“Your house,” I told him. “Over scotch.”

So we did our criminal justice business in a cozy, personal environment. Above the couch where I sat was a painting of the scene in The Maltese Falcon in which Sam Spade tells his client and lover Brigid O’Shaughnessy, “I won’t play the sap for you.”

On another wall was a framed duplicate of Hammett’s military discharge papers, where, to Fechh’s delight, the crime writer lists his occupation as “private investigator.” We were surrounded by leather-bound work—Milton, Chaucer, Joyce—and dozens of volumes containing the entire Union army archive from the Civil War. Opera serenaded us, though don’t ask me which ones. He showed me a bottle from his small winery in Healdsburg. I felt…comfortable. And when my visit was ending, I accepted my paper more like it was a birthday present than a summons.

“I almost forgot about it,” he said, not credibly.

We shook hands.

“You’re wasting your time,” I told him on my way out the door.

Silence. Then he smiled.

A month later, with the pol’s trial looming, he wanted to talk again. The lawyer employing Fechh had subpoenaed my phone records, which, as I’m a journalist, pissed me off.

The vinyl booth at the Starbucks on Bush Street and Van Ness Avenue seemed extra sticky. Maybe it was just the circumstances. The private eye was dressed in luxe-level North Face and black Ben Davis work pants, and he peered at me over his specs with a knowing smile. He was here to grill. But how could this snuggly, professorial type ever extract information?

Then he started to tell me some things about myself unrelated to the case. He’d done his research. Oh, and by the way, he believed I might be part of a powerful, mysterious cabal intent on ruining the city official for being too progressive.

“Did you ever talk to Kamala Harris about this?”

No.

He kept repeating his thesis. His relentlessness was intended to elicit feelings of guilt.

“Ha! That’s nuts. My wife went to a fundraiser for that guy,” I said, referring to the politician.

Silence.

“Go ahead, subpoena me. You’re wasting your time.”

More silence, an uncomfortable quiet like a pause in a Harold Pinter play. I realized he was a little unsettling, and I felt like I was being interrogated by my fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Untersee, who made me sweat even those rare times when I wasn’t guilty. Yes! Yes, ma’am! I snapped Billy Weiss’s suspenders. I’m sorry!

Defenseless, I told Fechh again what little I knew about the case. Political conspiracy? No. I was never called to testify.

The politician pleaded guilty to one charge.

In late 2018, I hired Fechh to run a profile of someone allegedly selling weed to minors at a sports center to which one of my sons belonged. Fechh’s report was pricey but did not cause additional alarm. Also, he told me the guy came from a very disadvantaged background. “You can do more if you want,” Fechh said, “but I’m finished with this. My advice is that you give him a break.”

The social-conscience thing “sounds just like him,” says Zach Fechheimer.

Josiah “Tink” Thompson left academia in 1976 to work as a private investigator for Fechh and Hal Lipset. Now retired, he manages the Bolinas Cemetery Corporation.
Josiah “Tink” Thompson left academia in 1976 to work as a private investigator for Fechh and Hal Lipset. Now retired, he manages the Bolinas Cemetery Corporation.
PENNI GLADSTONE

CLUE: SARTRE

Josiah “Tink” Thompson is the registered agent of the Bolinas Cemetery Corporation, selling plots and protecting those who can no longer defend themselves. But while he may cater to the dead now, what beats in the barrel chest of this 85-year-old man is the adventurous heart of a philosopher-imp.

He fits my romanticized version of a crusty retired PI. He tries to credit his career to Fechh, his bromance colleague. But he seems eternal in his own right. His arms, legs, and head fling about energetically when he speaks. I can’t help being enchanted by this contemporary Aesop with a large pinch of larcenous charm.

“It’s not about figuring out the case,” Tink tells me over a lunch of salmon and asparagus at the home—next to the graves—he shares with his wife, Nancy, who did some PI work with him. “It’s about creating a change in the world. You keep running into obstacles, and you have to take action. Then things change.”

He went to Andover and Yale, then Oxford, then taught philosophy at Haverford. He came to the Bay Area to write a book on Nietzsche and instead got hired in 1976 by Lipset and Fechh. “Why? Because they were working for management in a violent strike where I’d have to spy on the unions. They thought, What a wonderful deal for a lefty college professor.”

Tink’s autobiography is called Gumshoe: Reflections in a Private Eye. He views his long PI career as akin to mountain climbing, “where you start in safety and pass through danger as you get closer to success.”

Years ago, he was relaxing in his redwood-and-fir Marin hideaway when he got a call from a friend at the San Francisco Zen Center about a custody case. The conversation led to Tink jetting to India, where a six-year-old girl was being held by her father against a California court order. Returning the girl to her mother in the United States proved dangerous: he at first couldn’t find a “seam” (opportunity) to grab the girl, fiddled with a cover story involving a phony architect, faced armed guards and goons, had the father tied up in a Mumbai motel room (to be let go on Tink’s command), then waited in a customs line to almost surely be arrested when the passports did not match.

When the girl was safe, Tink and his operatives drove off in an old Austin, a monsoon breaking over them as they sang, “If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands.”

“Jean-Paul Sartre wrote a novel in the 1930s called Nausea,” Tink begins. “His chief character says, ‘Man is always a teller of stories, he lives surrounded by his stories and the stories of others. He sees everything that happens to him through them; and he seeks to live his life as if he was telling one.’ It seems to me that the very notion of story is at the heart of what happened to us then. Fechh stood for something quite different, and working for him was very much like entering into story after story, day after day.”

He gets teary. “I’m seven years older than Fechh was. I was supposed to die before him!”

Pierre Merkl, a.k.a. Mr. Lucky, promoting the documentary Getting Lucky (2018). He specialized in cults and once investigated the Church of Scientology on behalf of a magazine publisher.
Pierre Merkl, a.k.a. Mr. Lucky, promoting the documentary Getting Lucky (2018). He specialized in cults and once investigated the Church of Scientology on behalf of a magazine publisher.
OSCAR BUCHER/EVOLVE MEDIA PRODUCTION

CLUE: PERSON OF INTEREST

Pierre Merkl, a.k.a. Mr. Lucky, is the PI rule that proves the exceptional. He worked for Lipset and was a professional crooner on the side at venues including Burning Man and Lincoln Center. An art history student and an artist, he once exhibited his paintings in a show called Persons of Interest, inspired by his PI work.

Mr. Lucky wore sharkskin suits and Frank Sinatra porkpie hats and drove around San Francisco in his red 1961 Chrysler New Yorker. “I’m this creative guy who fell into the PI world for 35 years,” he tells me, speaking from New York, where he’s retired. “My specialty was cults.”

He sounds like a Damon Runyon character, speaking out of the side of his mouth. “I did a big case for Time when they were sued by Scientology,” he tells me. “My focus included…families of individuals who had been attracted into membership in cults.”

Mr. Lucky would start with background reports, “followed by reconnaissance, surveillance and identifications, interviews of witnesses.” Undercover operatives might come next.

He says he once used a bona fide mobster to convince a cult that its recruitment of a girl from an Italian American family might not be the wisest move. Mr. Lucky played the chauffeur for the mafioso.

Money woes and the pursuit of his art led him to pack his Chrysler and leave town for Manhattan. Press materials for a documentary short film about Mr. Lucky call his exit stage east a “bittersweet warning that the great city is slowly losing its most eccentric characters and, with [them], its bohemian soul.”

CLUE: THE PINKERTONS

When Fechh turned his back on academia for PI work, he called up the San Francisco office of Pinkerton, the country’s oldest investigations company, founded in 1850, which has held onto its original open-eye logo and the motto “We never sleep.” According to its website video, Pinkerton employees are “Strong. Brave. Tender. True.”

This would have appealed to Fechh, the combination of tough and tender. Founder Allan Pinkerton himself held more-liberal views than a lot of people at the time; he was an abolitionist and hired the first female detective as well as John Scobell, the first Black member of what later became the U.S. Secret Service—and likely the first Black detective in the country.

His successors at the firm went on to be, among other things, vicious strikebreakers and thugs. But Pinkerton operatives have since been rehabilitated as experts in comprehensive risk and security management as well as protective services. Think Kevin Costner in The Bodyguard.

I called Pinkerton to ask for a brief overview of its services. A note arrived from an Aimee Monk: “Thank you for reaching out, but we have decided not to provide any comments or quotes regarding this story. Best of luck and hope you have a good weekend.” You’re welcome, Aimee (is that your real name?), and by all means stay secret.

At a whole other spooky level of high-end, private intel-gathering, there are firms like the Israeli-run Black Cube. Watch the shows Fauda and Homeland and you’ll get a small idea of just how technologically advanced and into the dark arts Black Cube is.

The company describes itself this way: “A select group of elite Israeli intelligence community who specializes in tailored solutions to complex business and litigation challenges.” Why does that sound like a bucketful of dangerous euphemisms? I hope I’m never “tailored” by them.

CLUE: PLAY THE TAPE

Jack Palladino, with his colorful Hugo Boss suits, $900 pens, and overbearing style, ran profiles on some of Harvey Weinstein’s accusers—while Black Cube was doing the same thing. He himself was accused of intimidation, similarly to when he performed the same service for then–presidential candidate Bill Clinton amid his extramarital affairs (Palladino denies using pressure tactics).

A Boston-bred Cornell graduate with a master’s in political science and a law degree, Palladino was a Lipset operative early on. When he and Sutherland cut loose to form their own agency, it couldn’t have been more yin-yang. She was quiet, petite, and Australian. He was brash Boston Sicilian. “Macho bullshit,” Sutherland says, grinning.

“Like Fechh,” says Palladino, “Sandra was gifted and intuitive. I was relentless.” Palladino, 75 and newly retired, has been written about endlessly, sometimes to a nearly proctological degree. The San Francisco Examiner in 1999 noted that Palladino could be “charming” but also “confrontational, combative and egotistical…ruthless.” “I’m not a self-effacing individual,” Palladino confessed.

PI Eric Mason describes an encounter he had while working for Palladino on the fratricide case of the Mitchell brothers, San Francisco’s tragic kings of carnality, who ran the O’Farrell Theatre sex emporium until one of them, Jim—the client—killed the other, Artie: “There was a hairdresser at Stinson Beach who allegedly had a sex video that included Artie’s girlfriend, who I think stripped at the O’Farrell and was at Artie’s house when Jim came to kill him.” She would be a witness against Jim.

“Jack said we had to get the tape and use it to impeach her. We drive out to Stinson—Jack’s wearing an orange suit with red shoes or something—and we knock on the door. The hairdresser answers. Jack tells him, ‘You have a tape, and I want it.’ The guy says, ‘Get your fucking finger out of my chest and get the fuck out of my house!’ Jack sticks his foot in the door.”

It’s something Fechh would not have done. The detectives didn’t get the tape.

CLUE: ONE PERSON’S TRASH

“Do you want to see my best secret weapon?” private eye Jack Immendorf asked me.

This was decades ago, and Immendorf was a good source of mine on local stories. He was not former law enforcement but fit that mold, with his police contacts, sharp suits, pencil mustache, and strong scent of cologne.

“Sure.”

“OK. Shut the door.” He motioned me to come closer to his desk. Then he picked up, from the floor near his feet, a plastic garbage bag full of the detritus of someone’s life. And lots of clues.

Weeks later, I found myself in the Colorado Rockies foothill town of Evergreen with a mass of journalists staking out the home of Ronald Reagan shooter John Hinckley Jr.’s parents. I waited till late one night when the deadlines for most of the other press had passed, crawled by the security guards and police, made it to the trash, and grabbed it. I was euphoric.

Except the can was empty.

All the PIs I’ve talked to do it and relish the stinky tactic. The main rule of trash poaching: you have to replace what you take to avoid being found out.

Private detective Zach Fechheimer scans the once-noirish streets of North Beach and carries on the traditions of his late father.
Private detective Zach Fechheimer scans the once-noirish streets of North Beach and carries on the traditions of his late father.
PENNI GLADSTONE

CLUE: GUT AND INSTINCT

“I’m not a ’60s product,” says Mason, now 62. “That era wasn’t formative for me like it was for Jack and David and Tink and to some extent Lipset. I came up under those guys. There are not that many of us.”

And after they’re gone?

Joe Parisi, at 53, is on the younger side of the group. “Investigators sit behind a desk way more than they used to. Which is a shame for me, because I loooove talking to people in person,” says Parisi. He gave up a job as a criminal defense attorney to work with Fechh and was later hired by Palladino grad Mason. Parisi is reflective of the possibility that a well-regarded next generation will keep the Fechh spirit going for just a bit longer.

Like Zach Fechheimer, sons of Tink Thompson and another renowned PI of Fechh’s era, Sam Webster, have become private eyes. But there’s a powerful current pushing against them as they try to carry on the traditions of an earlier generation. Today “it’s much more technology-based, less face-to-face, and there’s less room for us to follow our gut and instinct,” says Parisi.

“Lawyers are less trusting of us, and some have never worked with an investigator,” he continues. Fechh “was a master at getting someone to invite him in no matter what the case or whose side they were on.” Knocking on doors, a onetime PI staple, “has become uncommon in general. People don’t answer. They’re apprehensive. And now COVID-19 has thrown another wrench.”

Younger PIs are out there, but Parisi worries that “a lot of them haven’t ever seen someone like” Fechh. “There’s just less of a sense of community than when I started. Those icons are passing on part of their skills, but they’re leaving us, and it’s hard to keep that alive.”

FINAL CLUE: LEGACY IN THE SHADOWS

By now it’s clear to me what’s gone missing in San Francisco.

The climate here is no longer congenial for the Fechhes, the Tinks, the Sutherlands, the Palladinos. Never mind Mr. Lucky. Tosca’s memorial attendees “will never be in the same room together again,” says Fechheimer’s business partner Kirsten Lee Soares.

Time, technology, corporatization, the coronavirus, and some disregard for the human condition have all but ended a storied practice. We are losing another point of personal contact. I think we are all poorer for it.

If I squint down a Tenderloin alley or a private driveway on Russian Hill, I can almost see through the mist an “adroit” and “reserved” private eye of the past.

Now they’re largely left to fiction, memory, and mystique.

On the ride home after my lunch with Thompson, I think about part of his eulogy for Fechh at Tosca and the indelible mark he and his coconspirators made on San Francisco:

So this is a story about David and judgment.

It was the summer of 1977. I was David’s “gofer” or “operative.” We were working out of a walk-up on Laguna Street. One day around noon, David said to me, “I got a woman coming in at two about a potential case. You wanna sit in on it?” Of course I did. This was the first time he’d ever asked me to do that.

At two, the three of us—David, me, and a woman I’ll call Mrs. Irvine—sat down in the living room of the flat. Mrs. Irvine was in her mid-50s, well-dressed and articulate. Her daughter, Sonia, had disappeared two weeks earlier. She showed us a picture of Sonia. A pretty girl of 26 with dirty-blond hair and a nice smile. As Mrs. Irvine poured out the details, it was pretty clear that foul play had nothing to do with Sonia’s disappearance. Given the number of leads Mrs. Irvine provided, it also looked like finding her would not be easy, but it would not be impossible either. After about 20 minutes, David interrupted: “From what you’re telling us, Mrs. Irvine, I can’t tell you whether it will be easy or hard to find Sonia. But I can tell you, it will be worth the effort.”

Mrs. Irvine took out her checkbook.

David went on: “But before you write out a check, I want you to know my conditions. I will try my best to find Sonia, but if I succeed, I won’t tell you where she is. I will pass messages back and forth, but I won’t let you know where she is.”

Mrs. Irvine looked up from her checkbook and asked, “Why?”

David looked across at her with that half smile of his and said, “We all have the right to disappear. Who knows? I might want to disappear myself someday.”

Phil Bronstein is the executive chair of the board of the Center for Investigative Reporting. He wrote about Senator Kamala Harris for Alta, Spring 2018.

Read more from Alta‘s Fall 2020 Noir Special Section.

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